Why Is Office Lighting So Bad?

A New York office at night in 2010.
Photo: Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum Photo

In the first minutes of Joe against the volcano, 1990 surreal romantic comedy Tom Hanks shows up for his work in a society of artificial testicles, housed in a dark, factory-like building overrun with audible, twinkling fluorescent tubes that cast an unhealthy green pallor. As he brews his powdered coffee, he stares at the eerie light, squinting, rubbing his swollen lymph nodes. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with a “brain cloud,” a life-threatening condition – the implication being that his impending death was caused, in part, by the vibrating fluorescent tubes. Watching this scene, I gasped in recognition. It was me. I was Tom Hanks, slowly dying of a brain cloud from bad office lighting.

To be clear, I am not talking specifically about the new York Magazine office lighting – our combination of LED ceiling lights and natural light is not particularly bad, but it is certainly bad in that all office lighting is bad, that is, weird, incredibly bright and not bright enough. (This is largely why I prefer to work from bed, like Mark Twain and Edith Wharton. We all three understand that in order to access the spirit you have to remove the body, and the only way to do that is to being horizontal next to a hot lamp.) Every office I have worked in has lighting that has made me feel varying degrees of insanity and depression. Why? I decided to investigate.

My first call was Dr. Mia Minen, associate professor of neurology and director of headache services at NYU Langone, with whom I wanted to discuss the robust psychological implications of office lighting. I asked Dr. Minen if bad lighting could kill you, and she paused for a long time. “No…” she said. She eventually agreed, however, that poor lighting can ruin the quality of your life. Dr Minen confirmed my suspicions that office lighting was a common migraine trigger, explaining that the combination of staring at a screen and sitting under artificial light bulbs on the ceiling is a killer for people with photophobia – sensitivity to light resulting from or causing migraine headaches. She said her patients complain about the lighting in her office all the time and recommends that they put an FL-41 filter in their eyeglass prescription, which helps block out some of the more horrific aspects of a light bulb. fluorescent or LED. Sometimes she will even go so far as to write her patients a doctor’s note saying they need special lighting at work. However, she won’t go so far as to recommend that they work from bed 100 percent of the time.

Dr Minen told me that another way that poor lighting ruins people’s lives is to depress them and recommends that any patient who feels emotionally decimated by the lighting in their office get a sad lamp and to get out of hell in the middle of the day, for god’s sake. ! “Fluorescent is not the best; natural light is better for the mood, ”she said. She added, worryingly, that each wavelength of light affects the brain differently; for example, white, blue, amber and red lights exacerbate headaches, and green lights make you look like Tom Hanks in Joe against the volcano. (These colors are not visible to the naked eye, so if you want to know what color of light your office emits, I’m sorry, you just have to have a headache to figure it out.) I asked Dr Minen if she had seen Joe against the volcano, and she stopped again. “No,” she said. “I am sorry.”

After establishing that office lighting can actually dismantle your entire life, my next calls are to Gary Huswit – a filmmaker who recently directed Workplace, a documentary about the redesign of the consulting firm’s New York headquarters. R / GA, and used as an opportunity to explore the history and future of office design more generally – and Ray Molony, the editor of Lux review. Both men listened to me patiently as I complained about the lights and then told me that the desks and the lighting that came with them had mostly always been rubbish and miserable, which made me feel a little unhappy. little better. Ray insisted that things were actually much worse.

In the 1850s, offices were mostly small, dark cave rooms populated by a handful of depressed men in brown suits working by the light of a gas lamp. At the start of the 20th century, offices evolved into the massive, open, and factory-inspired nightmares we still grapple with today, albeit illuminated primarily by incandescent and then ultimately fluorescent light, which were introduced in 1939. By the In the 1950s and 1960s, fluorescent tubes that cast light directly on people’s heads and audibly twinkled were the dominant form of office lighting, which meant everyone was fighting for offices with windows so as not to have to suffer. “If you’re under the same flickering fluorescent light for eight hours, it’ll drive you crazy,” Gary said, explaining the ’60s set.

Arguably, things were at their worst in terms of lighting in the mid-80s, when desktops proliferated and everyone scrambled to relight their desks to avoid glare. They accomplished this via the Cat 2 louvered fixture, which made the office feel like Plato’s cave, before Plato turned around and realized he could better light his cave. “You’re too young to remember them, but they were terrible,” Ray of the Cat 2’s said. “I lived through the 80s and it was not good. Back then, you had a black background on a computer with green letters – and only Bill Gates and Windows development changed that. Bill Gates made his computers primarily white-screen and black-lettered, which helped reduce glare; Soon, energy-efficient LED lights became increasingly popular, appearing in the foosball-riddled tech bubble offices of the early 2000s, even though, as Ray put it, “LEDs continued some of the sins of fluorescence. “

Specifically, LEDs – which are still the primary source of office lighting in the United States – can slowly drive people crazy by flickering at an imperceptible level, giving them headaches and, in my case, lingering suspicion. that reality is a subjective experience. Many offices are still lit from the top down, creating that “cave effect” that Ray says could be enhanced if we lit the walls instead of the ceilings. And despite the advent of better computers, offices as a whole have yet to fully understand the glare problem. “If the lighting setup isn’t well designed, they probably haven’t addressed the two big bad guys: glare and flicker,” Ray said. Overall, Ray agrees we have failed as a species: “I don’t think the lighting industry can congratulate itself on office lighting over the years.”

Ray and Gary pointed out that the main problem with office lighting – aside from the fact that everyone looks like shit – is that it ignores our circadian rhythms. “People don’t get the bright light they need for their sleep-wake cycle to work properly,” Ray said. “We’ve only learned in the last 20 years or so that bright lights, especially the blue component, define our sleep-wake cycle.” In Gary’s Workplace document, R / GA solved this problem by installing “human-centered lighting” that changes in tandem with everything that happens outside. “Artificial lighting in the office is not normal, having the same amount of light all day is not normal,” said Ray. “There is now a trend, to think about, Let’s have lighting that increases in intensity and that is more in line with what we as humans expect.“Unfortunately, most of us are not part of this trend. “The future is here, but it’s not evenly distributed,” Ray said.

It makes perfect sense to me that it took us 150 years to figure out how to illuminate the space in which we spend most of our waking hours. The human race loves to work against its own interests. This tragic fact is indeed addressed at the end of Workplace, when Nikil Saval, a now state senator who wrote a book in 2014 called Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, suggests that the problem is not office lighting or office design, but the concept of the offices themselves as a fundamental cornerstone of our productivity. He refers to WeWork as a messy example of how people will pay a lot of money to put themselves in a sham office environment, even if no one is forcing them to do so. In other words, we’ve all been brainwashed by capitalism into thinking that we have to be miserable and dying of a brain cloud in order to create a valuable product. “There is a strong belief in the power of the office that persists as a place to make people productive and create ideas,” Nikil says in the paper. “Until there is a real social or political revolution that will make many of these ideas much more suspect than they are, office will be a feature of world capitalism for a long time.

When I told Gary about it, we both laughed at the wry laughter of two human beings permanently caught between the sharp, bloody teeth of American capitalism. “It’s a pretty sad situation we found ourselves in,” Gary admitted. However, he hoped that the trend towards remote working brought on by the pandemic would convince officials that the office was no longer a necessity and that perhaps in the future we would no longer need to sit under lights. imperceptibly scintillating, looking and feeling. our worst. “We’ve all realized that we don’t have to be physically in the same space to do things,” Gary said, as I listened intently from my perfectly lit bed.

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